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Bayreuth Festival

August 30, 2010

The Bayreuth Festival is bound with tradition and founder Richard Wagner's vision for the event. But it closed this year with a tribute to festival innovator Christoph Schlingensief and a glimpse of changes to come.

The Green Hill in Bayreuth
The curtain has been drawn on the Green Hill until next summerImage: AP

The 99th Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth closed Sunday with a performance of Wagner's opera "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg."

The performance was dedicated to the provocative German film and theater director Christoph Schlingensief, who staged "Parsifal" at the 2004 festival. His production shocked some fans and was credited with bringing a new impulse to Bayreuth. Schlingensief died of lung cancer on August 21.

Composer Richard Wagner founded the Bayreuth Festival 134 years ago. Since then, his works - 10 operas - have been the sole basis for festival performances. This fact alone makes it clear how important tradition is in Bayreuth.

Tradition and renewal

However, some signs point to change following the era of long-time festival director Wolfgang Wagner, who died early in 2010. His daughters and successors, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, have exhibited both openness and savvy in taking over direction of the festival.

In 2010, the festival continued its media push by offering public viewings and livestreams of selected performances. On August 21, 20,000 viewers came to watch "The Valkyrie" transmitted live from the Festspielhaus to a big screen at a market square in Bayreuth.

Wagner's great-granddaughters and festival directors enter a ceremony together
Wager-Pasquier assured audiences that Wagner's operas will not be upstagedImage: AP

According to a survey, 70 percent of the guests had never attended a Wagner opera. While visitors ate sausage, beer and pretzels, they could follow the performance featuring close-ups and subtitles. The opera was also streamed live online and broadcast on Japanese television. The concept will continue next year with German broadcasters presenting "Lohengrin" live from the festival.

"Wagner for Kids" has also established itself as part of the event in Bayreuth. In the project's second year, "Tannhaeuser" was performed in a 70 minute kid-friendly version, targeted at six-to-12-year-olds. The children followed the opera with great interest, and the crowd's favorite was clearly love goddess Venus, who sported a punk outfit and a skateboard.

The beginning of the 2010 season also brought the announcement that an independent commission will receive complete access to the Wagner house archives in order to examine the role of the festival during the Third Reich. But at least one element is not up for discussion.

"It's certain that no other composer will be presented here," said co-director Eva Wagner-Pasquier. "We will of course uphold the vision of the foundation and Wagner house as well as the festival concept itself."

A shock for conservatives

Those who want to attend the Bayreuth Festival generally have to prepare for a long wait. This year brought 408,000 ticket requests from 80 countries for the just 54,000 available seats. It's regarded as a privilege to be in Bayreuth, even for the employees, who often had to work for low pay in previous years.

Changing attitudes toward compensation also mark the beginning of a new era for the festival. Following a salary dispute with stage workers last year, ticket prices had to be raised. Stage workers also succeeded in lobbying for mandatory breaks, which led to a new playing schedule this season. This time, the four operas in the Ring cycle - "The Rheingold," "The Valkyrie," "Siegfried," and "Twilight of the Gods" - weren't played consecutively. That may not seem like a monumental change, but it would have been nearly unimaginable under Wolfgang Wagner's direction and runs counter to the intentions of festival father Richard Wagner.

Many conservative Wagnerians belong to the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, an organization founded in 1949 by Wolfgang Wagner that since its inception has contributed more than 55 million euros ($70 million) to the festival. Following his death, the organization became a festival shareholder with the right to help make decisions related to the event. Disagreements and even public disputes have since erupted between the Society and the festival leadership, which has strongly backed a newly-founded fundraising organization called the Team of Active Festival Supporters.

A year of beautiful voices

Actors stand and look on during a dress rehearsal at tenor Lance Ryan, costumed as Siegfried
Tenor Lance Ryan garnered praise this year in his Bayreuth debut as SiegfriedImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

In their second year heading the festival, Wagner's great-granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier were able to fill the operas' ranks with better singers than in recent decades. The much-anticipated debuts included Jonas Kaufmann as Lohengrin, James Rutherford as Hans Sachs, Johan Botha as Siegmund and Lance Ryan as Siegfried. Ryan, a tenor from Canada, has been hailed as unsurpassed in the role.

2010 was the last year of the "Ring" production with director Tankred Dorst and conductor Christian Thielemann. Next year, Thielemann will not conduct the orchestra but still be heavily involved with the event. As musical advisor to the festival, he will have a say in who takes the Bayreuth stage as a vocalist or conductor.

Looking ahead

The 100th Richard Wagner Festival next year will feature a new production of "Tannhaeuser" directed by Sebastian Baumgarten and with Thomas Hengelbrock as conductor. 2013 will also bring a new staging of Wagner's masterpiece, "The Ring of the Nibelung," to mark the composer's 200th birthday. The stage director for that production has yet to be announced, but Kirill Petrenko of Russia is set to conduct the orchestra. Plans are also underway to debut three of Wagner's early operas in Bayreuth ("The Fairies," "The Ban on Love" and "Rienzi"), not in the festival hall but in a tent elsewhere in the town.

Katharina Wagner said her aim is to bring Bayreuth "eventually to the absolute cutting edge of Wagner productions."

Author: Rick Fulker (gsw)

Editor: Kate Bowen